A Retired Auto Exec at the Helm of Detroit’s Schools

After a storied career at General Motors, Roy S. Roberts became the head of Detroit’s public schools and is now preparing to leave the position.

Posted: 06/18/2013 05:31 PM EDT

As he prepared to turn over the reins of his most recent job, Roy S. Roberts, the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools, is clearly proud of what he has accomplished in less than two years in one of the nation’s most troubled school systems.

“We reduced the deficit from $327 million when I came on board, to $76 million in one year and four months,” Roberts said, in an interview with BET.com. “In two years we’ve gone through two years of balanced budgets. Good things are happening here.”

What’s more, he points to success in the classroom.

“Every grade from Kindergarten through eighth grade improved this year in state testing, except for one: fifth grade,” Roberts said. “That hasn’t occurred in 12 years.”

Roberts, a longtime executive with the General Motors Corporation who is considered an African-American pioneer in the corporate world, was appointed by Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, two years ago. Initially, he had planned to step down from heading the school system in May, but decided to remain on board for a few more months.

His decision to stay longer than his original departure date was to ensure that there would be a smooth transition to whoever the governor selects as Roberts’ successor.

“It’s important to me that we continue what we have going and improve it,” he said. “I want the person who comes after me to move it to even higher performance. We’re going in the right direction. We have been told by the federal officials that we have one of the most improved school districts in the country."

Despite the gains that have been made under Roberts’ stewardship, the Detroit Public Schools remain highly troubled. Since 2009, it has lost more than 100,000 students, with many children attending charter schools and private schools in Detroit. Today there are roughly 53,000 students enrolled in the school system, a number that is expected to decline to 40,000 by 2016, school officials said.

Many of the problems of the school system are the result of the chronically high unemployment in Detroit, coupled with the fact that more than 60 percent of the city’s children live in poverty.

Roberts said the state's Republican governor urged him to take over the ailing system. Roberts said he took the job because he saw it as playing a critical role in the renewal of Detroit.

But he took a hard line approach. He canceled nearly every contract with the school system’s contractors and vendors, asking them to submit new bids with an eye toward cost efficiency.

“We had the people rebid and we saved $44 million,” Roberts said. “Three years ago, these operations were spread across four buildings. I moved all the people into the Fisher Building,” he said, referring to the Art Deco-style skyscraper that houses the school system’s offices.  “We upgraded the facilities here and we saved $2.2 million a year. Some of this stuff just needed a business person’s attention.”

Born in Arkansas, the 74-year-old Roberts had a notable career at General Motors before retiring as group vice president for North American vehicle sales and marketing in 2000. He is widely considered a pioneer African-American in the ranks of corporate executives. For the bulk of his professional career, Roberts was the highest-ranking African-American executive in the automobile industry.

“I’ve been the first Black everywhere I went,” he once told Forbes magazine. “One of my jobs is to see that I’m not the last.”

For the future of the school system after his departure, Roberts said he would like to see school buildings used for senior care and child care while providing early education to every 4-year-old child in Detroit.

“Most of the kids who come to us in Kindergarten are damaged,” he said. “About 70 percent of our kids never see a man go to work in the morning because of unemployment and broken families. I want to see that changed. We have to fight for every child.”

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(Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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